The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century by Grace Lee Boggs

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I moved to Detroit on September 3, 2015. Eight days later, I attended a meeting at the Boggs Center. It was a convening of community activists to organize for the 2016 North American Social and Solidarity Economy Forum in Detroit. The walls were adorned with posters carrying slogans like “Another World Is Possible.” A bookshelf in the corner overflowed with writings like The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook by Jimmy Boggs and How to End Police Brutality by Ron Scott.

Before the meeting began, I started talking to a community activist, Richard Feldman, who, after learning why I moved to Detroit, handed me this book, The Next American Revolution by Grace Lee Boggs. “Read it,” he said. “And next time I see you I’ll check and see if you did.”

I didn’t get around to reading the book until summer 2016, but the intervening events prepared me to do so all the more. After the community meeting, I went home and watched the documentary American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs. Grace’s very first words in the film resonated with me: “I feel so sorry for people who don’t live in Detroit.” I already felt a historical kinship with her and other people who moved to this city to create a new world. As an Indian American, I also felt heartened that Grace, a Chinese woman, was able to have such a profound impact on American justice movements despite of (or perhaps partly because of) her Asianess.

Hardly a month later, on October 5, 2015, Grace Lee Boggs passed away. She was 100 years old. On October 31st, a memorial service was held in Detroit. The union hall that hosted the service was packed. An organizer directed me and my friend to an overflow venue, a nearby church, to watch the livestream. One after another, speakers like Tawana Petty commemorated Grace by speaking on what she meant to them, to the city, and to the historical struggle for justice and liberation. Attendees were encouraged to tweet using the hashtag #GraceLeeTaughtMe to express how she touched them as well.

In April 2016, I participated in the North American Social and Solidarity Economy Forum, which showcased grassroots initiatives from around the country striving for self-determination, liberation, and socioeconomic transformation. Grace’s spirit was invoked repeatedly, and her documentary film was screened again. At that point, I decided to go deeper and read about Grace in her own words. This is my review of her 2011 book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century.

Summary

Grace has such an accessible yet profound writing style that I think the best way to summarize the ideas in her book is to directly quote from it. As such, I’ve excerpted what I think are the main points from each chapter, and bolded certain phrases to add extra emphasis.

Chapter 1: These Are the Time to Grow Our Souls

  • “Over the past seventy five years the various identity struggles have to some degree remediated the great wrongs done to workers, people of color, Indigenous Peoples, women, gays and lesbians, and the disabled, while helping to humanize society overall. But they have also had a shadow side in the sense that they have encouraged us to think of ourselves more as determined than as self-determining, more as victims of “isms” (racism, sexism, capitalism, ableism) than as human being beings who have the power of choice. For our own survival we must assume individual and collective responsibility for creating a new nation.”
  • “Radical social change has to be viewed as a two-sided transformational process, of ourselves and of our institutions, a process requiring protracted struggle and not just a D-Day replacement of one set of rulers with another.”
  • “The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956 was the first struggle by an oppressed people in Western society from this new philosophical/political perspective. Before the eyes of the whole world, a people who had been treated as less than human struggled against their dehumanization not as angry victims or rebels but as new men and women, representative of a new, more human society. Practicing methods of nonviolence that transformed themselves and increased the good rather than the evil in the world and always bearing in mind that their goal was not only desegregating the buses but creating the beloved community”
  • “This is the kind of transformational organizing we need in this period. Instead of putting our organizational energies into begging Ford and General Motors to stay in Detroit—or begging the government to keep them afloat—so that they can continue to exploit us, we need to go beyond traditional capitalism. Creating new forms of community-based institutions (e.g., co-ops, small businesses, and community development corporations) will give us ownership and control over the way we make our living, while helping us to ensure that the well-being of the community and the environment is part of the bottom line.”

Chapter 2: Revolution as a New Beginning

  • “Individuals can develop to their human potential only through their involvement in community”
  • “[Hegel] created a method of thinking, a philosophy, that encourages the freedom fighter to view the contradictions that emerge in the course of every struggle as a challenge to take Humanity to a higher plateau by creating a new ideal, a new, more concrete universal vision of Freedom”
  • “These two notions—that reality is constantly changing and that you must constantly be aware of the new and more challenging contradictions that drive change—lie at the core of dialectical thinking.”
  • “[R]ebels see themselves and call on others to see them mainly as victims. They do not see themselves as responsible for reorganizing society.”
  • “[Revolutionaries] involve people at the grassroots in assuming the responsibility for creating the new values, truths, infrastructures, and institutions that are necessary to build and govern society”

Chapter 3: Let’s Talk About Martin and Malcolm

  • “Movement builders are also very conscious of the need to go beyond slogans and to create programs of struggle that transform and empower participants. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example, created an alternative self-reliant transportation system.”
  • “Confident of their own humanity, movement builders are able to recognize the humanity in others, including their opponents, and therefore the potential within them for redemption. So they hate unjust deeds but are careful not to hate the doers of those deeds. And they choose to struggle nonviolently because they know that nonviolent struggles can become swords that heal, enabling both sides to grow to humanity’s full stature and restoring community, while violent struggles increase the hate, fear, and bitterness in the world.”
  • “Even though justice is on our side, we recognize that we are also products of this society. That is why we make sure that the methods we use in our struggles are transforming ourselves as well as our opponents into more human human beings”

Chapter 4: Detroit, Place and Space to Begin Anew

  • “Living at the margins of the postindustrial capitalist order, we in Detroit are faced with a stark choice of how to devote ourselves to struggle. Should we strain to squeeze the last drops of life our of a failing, deteriorating, and unjust system? Or should we instead devote our creative and collective energies towards envisioning and building a radically different form of living?”
  • [Quoting Gerald Hairston:] “‘[W]e cannot free ourselves until we feed ourselves.” In other words, it is only when we can provide for our own basic needs that we are empowered to make our own choices.”
  • “Jimmy [Boggs] had helped us to envision the possibility of local enterprises (for-profit and not-for-profit) based on small-scale production, cooperation, and self-reliance”

Chapter 5: A Paradigm Shift in our Concept of Education

  • “[Paulo] Freire critiqued the bourgeois ‘banking method’ of education, in which students were expected to memorize the ‘truths’ of the dominant society—that is, ‘deposit’ information in their head then ‘withdraw’ it when required for tests, jobs, and other demands by overseers. Instead, Freire argued that critical thinking can develop when questions are posed as problems. This problem-posing method provides no automatic ‘correct’ answer. By contrast, students must discover their own understanding of the truth by developing a heightened awareness of their situation.”
  • “Freire’s revolutionary method of [popular education] has also transformed the way we approach political organizing and struggle, for as he maintained, we must view making revolution as an inherently educational process. Freire argued that
    revolutionary work must transform the oppressed from passive victims to agents of history, seeking the ‘pursuit of fuller humanity.’ Thus the emphasis is on people taking control of their own destiny—‘self-determination’ in the truest sense of the word. Transforming relations means that revolution is not about the oppressed switching places with the oppressors, nor is it about the ‘have-nots’ acquiring the material possessions of the ‘haves’. It is about overcoming the ‘dehumanization’ that has been fostered by the commodification of everything under capitalism and
    building more democratic, just, and nourishing modes of relating to people.”

Chapter 6: We Are the Leaders We’ve Been Looking For

  • “We are creating a revolutionary alternative to the counterrevolutionary and inhuman policies of the U.S. government, but we are not subversive […] We are struggling to change this country because we love it”
  • “I am not dissing or dismissing […] the various identity movements […] Without them none of us would be where we are today. We have all evolved out of these achievements and limitations. That is how each generation develops dialectically from the one that preceded it.”
  • “[T]he movement today, in this period and this country, is being created not by the cadres of a vanguard party with a common ideology, but by individuals and groups responding creatively with passion and imagination to the real problems and challenges that they face where they live and work […] They/we are the leaders we are looking for.”

My Thoughts

What Grace is doing is incredible. In contrast to traditional political philosophers, who proclaim an overarching ideology and urge the masses to dogmatically apply it, Grace is transforming grassroots activists into philosopher-activists themselves. If you are a reader looking for concrete answers, this may frustrate you. Grace’s diagnosis of what ails us is evident—capitalism, environmental extraction, spiritual poverty, social hierarchy—but her prescription is not. Instead her solution is a new way of thinking and doing. A way of thinking that says you, yes you, must find the answers through individual and collective theory, practice, and reflection. You must to live out the new society that you want in your own way with others in your community, and continually re-invent your practice based on the learnings that emerge. Grace sometimes ascribes labels to this philosophy in her book: dual-sided transformation, visionary or transformative organizing, dialectical humanism. But at the Boggs Center in Detroit, there are signs that read: “{r}evolution.” The curly brackets around the “r” in are meant to convey that a true social revolution begins with self-evolution, that is, personally living out the new culture, the new economy, and the new world. I like to type it as “rEvolution” (because it’s easier to hashtag), but I like the clarity that this formulation provides: a real rEvolution demonstrates of new way of thinking and being with each other and nature, and the way to prove and scale that new world is to live it out as best as you can with your community wherever you are at.

I like the rEvolutionary framework of social change because it encourages the development of qualities that I think are necessary for a social revolution to be self-sustaining and broadly-based: participatory, pluralistic, adaptive, and dually transformative, that is, of both self and society.

For someone who is only aware of traditional political strategies, the rEvolutionary approach may seem unrealistic. But that’s why Grace—in her book—continually names real examples from Detroit and around the world. The breadth and variety of these success stories attest to the diversity of means possible towards manifesting a new culture, economy, and society.

And personally, having lived in Detroit for over a year now as a community lawyer doing solidarity economy work, I can also confirm this: it’s really happening. I allude to some of Detroit’s “community-based institutions” that Grace talks about in another piece here. But rEvolutionary organizing can be seen in many Detroit initiatives including: D-Town Farm, the Detroit Just Transition People’s Movement Assembly, Charity Hicks’ organizing to #WageLove, the ONE Mile Project, Soulardarity, Detroit Freedom Schools, New Work New Culture, Talking Dolls/Complex Movements, and many, many, many more. And while the conditions that created the consciousness necessary to start developing such transformative alternatives may not exist elsewhere to the extent to which they exist in Detroit, you can start co-creating your own rEvolution, as it fits the local conditions, capacities, and consciousness wherever you are at. That, I think, is the biggest takeaway from Grace’s book.

The Role of Resistance

One possible criticism of Grace’s rEvolutionary theory is that she can sometimes over-emphasize the need to do for ourselves to create the new world, at the risk of seeming to downplay the need to resist right-wing repression and counterrevolution. This tendency can make her seem out-of-touch and alienating to people, especially very vulnerable populations or activists engaged in oppositional organizing. A very thoughtful piece on this seeming tension (written by Aaron Petkov) can be found here, and I also touch on it in here. However, I do not think that this is Grace’s intention.

Instead of telling leftists to stop doing resistance and reform work, I think that Grace is responding to the tendency she feels of leftists to solely engage in resistance and reform. In addition, Grace says, we must also re-imagine and re-organize society so that it actually achieves the goals we want. As a result, even our resistance and reform efforts should demonstrate and prefigure that radically different alternative.

Grace’s innovation is to arm people at the grassroots with the intellectual tools to continually do that work of re-imagination and reconstruction. Not just as an afterthought, but as an integral part of practice, at all phases of social change work. And for the success of any socioeconomic alternative based on participatory or deep democracy, this innovation seems not only desirable but necessary, because it evolves people, during their struggle, to develop the intellectual and practical skills of leadership, creativity, responsibility, and citizenship at a broad level.

But Is There Any Ideology?

For those seeking some more concrete ideological guidance, there are plenty of theories out there, and Grace references some of them in passing, including community-based economics, socialism, and solidarity economics. For me though, the guiding ideology that I think best encapsulates the grassroots, practice-based, and dually-transformative aspects of rEvolution is the solidarity economy framework.

In brief, the solidarity economy is an alternative socioeconomic paradigm that seeks to achieve collective economic determination and social liberation through the implementation of economic democracy and social solidarity. Economic democracy is when community members collectively own the means of production and democratically operate them to serve human needs and values. Social solidarity is collaborative action between people with different oppressions for collective self-determination and liberation. Solidarity economy theory and practice (or, “praxis”) is guided by the values of cooperation, community, mutualism, interdependence, social equity in all dimensions (race, class, gender, etc.), environmental sustainability, and the primacy of people and the planet over profit. In addition, solidarity economy practitioners seek to implement their initiatives in ways that are hyperlocal, participatory, pluralistic, decentralized, adaptive, iterative, organic, scale-oriented, and dually transformative. Concrete examples of solidarity economy efforts include:

  • Worker Cooperatives: businesses that are democratically owned and controlled by
    their workers and operated for their benefit. Worker co-ops create self-employment, serve community needs, and keep benefits local.
  • Consumer Cooperatives: a service or good that is democratically self-organized by those who use it in order to meet a need in a way that is unaddressed by the marketplace (for example: housing co-ops, cooperative loan funds, and co-op grocery stores).
  • Community Land Trusts: property that is owned by a non-profit and democratically governed by community members to ensure affordable, stable housing or other community needs.
  • Participatory Budgeting: democratic deliberation and voting by citizens on how public tax dollars will be spent to benefit the community.

While I believe that Grace’s rEvolutionary philosophy is compatible with the solidarity economy framework, I think it can also apply to other frameworks for socioeconomic organization, including one or more (or a mix) of the following: economic democracy, cooperative economics, democratic socialism, participatory socialism, socialism from below, market socialism, and perhaps even social democracy. But again, Grace’s intention is not for us to get bogged down in arguments over which system is best in theory before we move forward. It’s to encourage us to start in the practice, reflection, and refinement of something. And in the crisis of our current system (neoliberal or “late stage”capitalism), I think this sort of grassroots, broad-based, pluralistic experimentation is necessary for the discovery of alternatives that can succeed and scale. Grace’s rEvolutionary philosophy is a mindset from which we can engage in that praxis so that it’s the most transformative. And what #GraceLeeTaughtMe is that if we do so, then perhaps the next American revolution can be a rEvolution as well.

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